For the first 45 minutes of the celebrated South African drama Sizwe Banzi is Dead, Syracuse Stage audiences may feel that they have stumbled on to a comedy duo from old-time vaudeville instead.
Tallish, thin Styles (Atandwa Kani), a brilliant monologist, begins with the tried-but-true device of reading the newspaper: “Headline: Pregnant woman blames gay boyfriend.” Only gradually do we realize that the time is four decades past. Communism still reigns in Moscow. And a black man in white-dominated South Africa is not free to be on the street without a passbook. They’re hard to get and expire quickly.
Sizwe Banzi (Mncedisi Shabangu), a comic foil of contrasting physical type, turns up asking to have his picture taken. Sizwe is a country fellow who needs to have city things explained to him. He does not know the photographer’s slang term, “Make a 4,” which means “cross your legs.”
What follows is the cleverest device in a skillfully put-together show. Styles moves seamlessly from making fun, sometimes employing the distinctive Xhosa click sound, into an exposition of how laws governing passbooks work, and how they oppress. As a rhetorical device it is not without precedent. Think of Bob Newhart’s routine in which Sir Walter Raleigh explains tobacco to Queen Elizabeth. It’s all true, but it just sounds nuts.
As apartheid was abolished more than two decades ago, local audiences might need a refresher to understand the intrigue called for to solve the problem. According to the law, black Africans born in native reserves, like the frequently mentioned King William’s Town, belonged there and could enter the prosperous, industrialized Republic of South Africa only as passbook-carrying aliens seeking low-paying dirty and dangerous jobs. If a job-seeker is laggard or unsuccessful, his passbook expires and he becomes a non-person. This is what has happened to Sizwe, hoping to stay on in the black township of New Brighton near the pleasant city of Port Elizabeth.
The actors and co-writers in the original 1972 South African production, John Kani as Styles and Winston Ntshona as Sizwe, were jailed for a period after the opening, the play being deemed a threat to public safety. Only the text is completely honest, fudging nothing. Kani continued to play the role hundreds of times all over the world, just recently turning it over to his son Atandwa, who performs it in Syracuse under his father’s direction.
Given that Sizwe Banzi is a title character, we fully expect that the man in the bright white suit is indeed he, as he is identified in the program, but in ordering of a photograph he gives his name as Robert Zwelinzima. An explanation of how this has come about requires Atandwa Kani to change costumes and body-sets to play a friend named Buntu, a man not given to Styles’ antic hilarity.
While in Buntu’s company, Sizwe goes drinking in neighborhood bars, called Shebeens. Relieving himself in the bushes one night he comes across a dead body. Reporting this find to the police would create nothing but trouble. The dead man has on his person a passbook with a work-seeker’s permit. The cagey Buntu suggests that peeling off Zwelinzima’s photograph from the book and replacing it with Sizwe’s picture would solve his problems.
What raises Sizwe Banzi from a clever anecdote to a drama-within-a-comedy is that the central theme is identity, not race. The oppressive apartheid regime not only sought to humiliate and disenfranchise native blacks, it did not wish to see them. Not only should they not be allowed to loiter around, but the wholeness of their selves should be reduced to a passbook. If that’s all that’s left, best to declare it dead.
Although it’s tempting to call Sizwe Banzi timeless, notable changes have crept in, such as street expletives unheard in 1972. Indeed, it might be odd not to hear them these days.
Atandwa Kani is quite a different person from his father, just as Michael Douglas is not Kirk Douglas. Atandwa is taller and more balletic than John, while his physical expressiveness works especially well in the assembly-line sequence of the opening monologue. Whereas squat John Kani had been Oliver Hardy to Winston Ntshona’s Stan Laurel, lithe Atandwa Kani’s Styles is the quick fox to lumbering Mncedisi Shabangu’s hedgehog.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead continues this week on Wednesday, March 4, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, March 5, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, March 6, 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 7, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 8, 2 and 7 p.m.; Tuesday, March 10, and Wednesday, March 11, 7:30 p.m., at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St. Call 443-3275 for details.